Evening of a Faun
By Dan Callahan
It didn’t sound too promising at first. The man on the other end of the line said that he worked with dancers, and he wondered if I might like to come over and maybe dance for him. Our terse conversation on the phone felt guarded on his end and measured and suggestive. We talked about beauty, and the voice said that he had been beautiful once but that he was “a ruined beauty” now. This intrigued me, as did the roughness of his authoritative voice. It was not the sort of voice you usually heard on this phone line. Everybody tried to sound butch-er than they actually were, and I was no exception to that. But if this guy was also masquerading, it was one of the more convincing attempts.
My dance man and I made a date to meet at his apartment. Again, I wasn’t expecting much. I had already met a lot of people in Manhattan who claimed to be directors, photographers, actors, designers, and they were anything but. They were just poor, neglected people who had hung on tight and who might have wanted to do something in those areas twenty or thirty years ago and had made a few stabs at those treasured dreams, but it all came down to a review in the Times from 1986, or an extended run in 1973.
So I entered the building after my dance man buzzed me in, and I went up in the elevator, and then I saw the name on the door. I didn’t know anything about dance then (I still don’t know much), but even I recognized the name on the door. This was not just some dirty old man who had once directed a terpsichorean evening at P.S. 122 in the mid-80s. No, this was a man who was among the few famous choreographers of the day.
The door opened, and the man who had opened it acted like he did not want to be seen, but he did want to be heard. He gave me commands; go there, move here. The apartment was smallish and dark, a large studio, with windows that showed off a view of downtown. There was very little furniture, but it was handsomely appointed. It was immediately clear to me that this wasn’t a primary residence but “a place in the city.”
“Take your shoes and socks off,” the voice said, and I obliged. The hardwood floors felt good under my feet. “Now your shirt,” the voice said. I was breathing heavily and I pulled my shirt over my head, and my heart was pounding because I was so excited. “You’re very thin,” he said, impersonally, appraisingly. “Take your pants off.”
I took my pants off fairly fast and stood there in front of him and I was very happy in the dark and the silence. I was so at home in this situation. “You have big calves,” the voice said. “Your legs are good.” The voice was far less impersonal now, almost excited, and it wasn’t really a sexual excitement but more of a feeling of possibility.
“Now, if you want to get into my company, you’re going to have to show that you can take direction,” he said, sitting down on a low couch. I could feel him staring at me intently, and I started to make him out in the dark. He had longish hair and a leonine kind of head, and a quality of nobility. He was set apart. He was a king.
He just looked at me for a moment more and then got up and put on some jazz music, Duke Ellington. I started to move—I had taken dance classes before—and he stopped me right away. He was so totally a choreographer that he took everything related to movement seriously. This was just a sex scene role-play we had set up through a phone line, but he took the time to explain certain things to me about dance.
“You’ll be my pony boy,” he said, and this made me smile. He started the Ellington music again, and then he came back over to me and showed me how to move subtly against the rhythm of the music. His hands were around my waist and then on my shoulders and he was gently moving me like a puppet around the darkened space of the studio, and I let myself be led, because I was obviously in the hands of some kind of master.
Finally he sort of tipped me over and pulled my underwear down and got on his knees and went to work, and this was as extraordinarily awkward physically as the dance and dance direction from him had been so very graceful and suspended in time. I had to position myself in totally ungraceful ways for him to get what he wanted, but I didn’t mind, for I liked and trusted him right away.
When he was finished with me, I put my underwear back on and draped myself on a chair with my legs stretched out for him to see, and we talked for a time as the light faded and faded until we were really sitting in the dark, and all I could hear was that low, rumbly voice of his. I pretended I hadn’t seen his name on the door, because that’s what he wanted, I could tell.
He talked a bit about former lovers, with an appealing sort of reticence. I had listened to so many drunken guys at bars babble about past loves; they wanted to tell me everything all at once, and they ruined whatever might have been interesting about their lives by being so unselective, so garrulous. My choreographer held things back, to be protective of himself, to be mysterious. I tried to be at my best, high energy, lyrical. I told him about my writing on the theater and on film, and a little bit about my photographer friend Ben Morrissey. He knew Ben’s work, and he knew the photos Ben had taken of me. “They’re everywhere, aren’t they?” he asked, kindly.
He got up and enquired if I’d like a glass of water, and I said yes, and I watched him move through the space. It was clear that he had been and still was a real dancer; it was a pleasure just to watch him walk across a room. He was rooted to the ground and moved decisively, like very masculine men do in bars, right shoulder forward, left shoulder forward, almost like a sailor, a rolling walk, but the difference with him is that his knees were slightly bent at all times, so that he might take off and spring into the air or sink down to the floor at a moment’s notice.
After I left and went home, I typed his name into Google and found out that he had lopped almost twenty years off his age on the phone line, but that was to be expected. He was an exceptional person, and so what was twenty years? Especially if you could control the environment in a darkened apartment. Why not? Nevertheless. I have sometimes taken two years off my age, as Katharine Hepburn did most of her life, for Hepburn was sensible or right about most things. Knocking off more than two years is pushing it, I think; lopping off twenty years is nothing if not bold, but he was so dishy still that he got away with it.
I had gotten a pretty good look at him in the light as he opened the door of the studio for me to leave, and he wasn’t a “ruined beauty” as he had said, at least not to me. He was the most attractive, magnetic older man I had met at that point, and his charisma was very different from any I had encountered before. This man was a closed fortress, with armored guards.
I went up to the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library and asked for a video of his work, and I sat down in a cubicle and put some headphones on, and then there he was in a black leotard in 1968 performing his first dance. First he was down on the floor like he was about to do push-ups, and he did do a push up and lifted his legs as high into the air as he could get them in back, and from this position he fell gracefully down onto his left shoulder and somehow got himself instantly back up on his knees, as if by sleight of hand. He did not have long legs himself; in fact, he was somewhat short. He had been wiry as a younger dancer, and the man I had met was stocky and barrel-chested.
He reached up and up with his arms in this 1968 dance and then seized back into himself, as if he had been mortally wounded, and then slowly he opened his arms back up and stretched his arms and legs out, trying to get upright again until he did a neck stand, and then suddenly he was standing, and I have no idea how he got up off the ground to a standing position so quickly. He was like this beautiful toy that could do anything. I later saw the French dancer Jean Babilée do a similar neck stand in filmed bits of the dance “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort,” and I wondered if my choreographer had somehow seen this.
At the end of this early dance, he swung around with his arms out in a quasi-Chinese manner, and then he fell to the ground and did a backwards somersault onto his left shoulder—his perfect little body shot right up into the air from this left shoulder—in a straight line!—and then he collapsed to sit on his tailbones and extended his pressed-together-legs and moved them right and then left…right and then left. This movement with his extended, closed legs was so don’t-touch-me sexy that I got hard right there at Lincoln Center, where erections are frowned upon.
I went over to “audition” again, as soon as I could. He put on Debussy this time, and we talked about Nijinsky. He showed me how Nijinsky had “humped a scarf” during his notorious dance to Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” I was in my underwear (green print Lycra from H & M, $12, and worth every penny) and bare feet, and he started getting really into my Nijinsky impersonation as I undulated around the space with my palms up, like the Nijinsky photos I had seen. He got up from where he was sitting and said, “Now move your hips in slightly wider circles, can you do that?” I moved my hips more decisively. “Huh,” he said, studying me.
He barreled over to me quickly and roughly pulled down my underwear to my knees and I took a sharp excited breath and my erection throbbed, and as he was walking away from me he turned his lion head slightly and grunted, “Take those off,” over his shoulder. I did as I was told, and I stood there naked and very very happy. He went into a closet and he came back out with some emerald green tights and a cunning little hat with all sorts of thingamabobs hanging off of it, and he placed the hat on my head so that my face was framed by green fringe, and I sat down and put the tights on; they were sheer and almost see-through, but not quite.
When I stood back up in these tights, I felt different, like some sea creature. He was seated, watching me intently, ruminatively, as if he were smoking a cigarette without a cigarette. I stayed upright and moved my arms a lot and rolled my hips in ever-widening circles to the Debussy music, and he just watched me.
“Okay, this is good, actually,” he said, like he was somewhat surprised. “But you need to think about working on different levels. You need to be able to work on the floor.” I tried to sort of float down to the floor as I had seen him do in his dance, but it didn’t quite work. “Here, you’re not trained, that’s OK, but let me show you some tricks,” he said, getting up again and coming over to me.
He guided my body down to the floor and told me to think of myself as not solid but liquid. He said that I didn’t have any bones, not really. I found myself down on the floor, with his strong hands on my neck, and the tension that I always carried in my shoulders began to disappear. I was on my back, moving instinctively to the Debussy music, with the rhythm and then against it, and I lifted my legs as high into the air as I could get them and then closed them tightly and made the movements I had seen him make on the tape from 1968 at Lincoln Center.
It was dark in the studio as always and getting darker, and I let the coaxing of the oboes and the muted horns in the Debussy piece lead my body all around the floor, with his hands sometimes guiding me. I slipped far, far away from him down the floor and extended my legs and my arms in a very angular position, and he cried, “Hold that! Stay with that for a few seconds! Let me look at that, that’s unusual!”
I did as I was told, and I felt that I could hold this pose on the floor forever because it felt so right, so decisive, so theatrical and aggressive. “Now get up onto your knees and extend your left leg out for me,” he said. I did this and held my balance. He crouched down and ran his hand up my leg, from foot to calf to inner thigh. “Slide back down onto the ground on your stomach,” he said in his lowest gravelly voice. “Now lift your chest off the floor.”
I did that, and it was a yoga pose, almost, and his hands lifted my torso as far up as it would go. “Stay like that for me, just stay there!” he cried, and it sounded like he was trying to restrain his excitement, and I found this extremely attractive, both the excitement and the attempt at restraint.
He roughly yanked the tights down in back to my knees. “Stand up and take those off,” he said in a very heated voice, and then he went back to his closet, and I heard him saying, “This dance should really be done with almost nothing on, just your cap and some glitter and body make-up and something in front to cover your cock,” he said energetically, as if he were creatively as well as sexually stirred. “Put this on, it’s a posing strap,” he said, handing me a tiny bit of material.
I put on the posing strap for him, and it barely covered me. I loved that he was dressing me up and treating me seriously as a dancer. He dusted me with a little gold glitter all over my chest and my legs. “Can you repeat what you just did, starting on the floor, with your legs together extended and move them like you did?” he asked, very seriously, all business, professional.
Did he realize that I was repeating one of his moves from his 1968 dance? Maybe he sensed it as I got back down and repeated this move and did the angular position on the floor that he liked with my legs extended and my arm in a claw-like pose, and then I got on my knees and extended my left leg. “That’s good, but you don’t know how to get off the floor in one movement,” he said. “Here, let’s practice that.”
And so we did, over and over again, until my slight awkward fumbling up, with its wobbly stages, became a much smoother transition, not as smooth as a dancer’s, or as smooth as his in 1968, of course, but smooth enough. “You’re as good as anyone in my company,” he said, off-handedly, but his impersonal tone let me know that he was actually being somewhat serious about this. I think. Then he got out a long scarf from the closet and staggered the material in the middle of the floor.
“Okay now, lower yourself as slowly as possible onto the scarf,” he growled. I sidled over to it and tried to kind of relate to it in an animal way, and he let out a light chuckle. “Good, you’re a horny little faun, now lower yourself down onto it…that’s it…stick your ass out so that the audience can see it…it’s a nice little ass, let them look at it.”
I was very hard in the posing strap; the sound of his voice was so arousing to me. I got down on the scarf, like Nijinsky had, and he said, “Now hump it…really hump the scarf….” I was close, and he knew it, and he tipped me over and jerked me off into his hand and then smeared the result all over my chest and picked me up and dropped me in a chair and tied my legs up on the chair and my hands on the arms of the chair and put his mouth on me, making little growling sounds. It took a while, but I climaxed again, and then he left me there, tied up, for a little bit. He walked around the space with his sailor walk, looking at me, and then he put his mouth on me a second time. I could barely stand it, it was such fun.
I was more than spent when he untied me and I stretched my legs out for him over the arms of the chair. He got me some water, and I put my shirt on. “Leave your pants off,” he said. We talked in the dark, and he was still very guarded. It was clear to me that he had been through a lot, and he had a stoicism, a dignity, that I found extremely winning. He was the opposite of a complainer. Keep things to yourself. But if you have things to give, give them selectively. Don’t be stingy, but don’t unload everything onto people. Don’t be needy, be a warrior, and you’ll have a better time.
He talked about a few of his major relationships. “Don’t ever be competitive with each other,” he said, and this thought landed with me, for it was the useful advice of someone who usually didn’t give advice. When I got up to leave, I spilled water on my shirt, and he went into the bathroom and got a hair-dryer and dried me off with it. This felt like a romantic moment to me. It was intimate, almost domestic.
He wrote me an email the next day, and he wanted me to come over again right away. He had one of those anonymous accounts for sex stuff that I never bothered with. It was artdad at something dot com. He was the sort who had an enthusiasm and wanted to go as far with it as quickly as possible. So I showered and went over to his studio in the evening again, around 6PM.
“We need to test your flexibility some more,” he said right away as I came in. He was still doing our agreed upon role-play, me as a dancer auditioning, he the dance master. I stripped to my underwear again (this time an almost see-through blue print from H & M). He put on the jazz again, Duke Ellington. That must have been what he was working on at the time, and I think he might even have been working out ideas about it, using me as a model.
I did my best. I moved against the rhythm of the music, which suited my instinctive perversity. He let me go and go and go. I was up, I was down, my legs were in the air, extended out, my hands fluttered a little but then made decisive stops, and then I got down on the floor and stayed down there, making movements as if I were trapped but didn’t give a damn. “That’s right,” he said finally. “You can stay down there. No need to get up. Stay down there, on the floor, use the floor.”
I moved and moved, and I felt that I could continue for as long as he wanted me to as the music got sexy. It was “Black and Tan Fantasy,” and there was good humor in this Ellington sexiness. He got up and pulled me off the floor and stood behind me and put his hands on my hips and we moved together slowly for a bit, against the rhythm of the music. That dark studio of his, always getting darker. He let me make my own movements, but he also maneuvered me into his headspace for the movements that were his. It was a kind of breakthrough in my mind, my body (they were the same thing right then). It was what I was looking for. I was in a euphoric state. Sex wasn’t the whole answer to what I wanted, but sexual energy was.
Eventually he sat me down in a chair and tied my hands and feet to it and went to town on me two or three times, and it did nothing for me one way or another. He liked it, I suppose, and I liked dancing for him and with him. I liked learning. As I looked down at the top of his lion head, I remembered the exceptionally beautiful boy I had seen on the tape from 1968, and it gave me a thrill when I thought, “You’re doing this with that guy.” I found this double consciousness—my attraction to him now and my attraction to his 1968 self—enormously exciting because it was so erotically mental, like I was getting two very different hot guys in one.
As I thought more and more about this, I began to imagine being with him at many different ages…at 16 at school in the hallways, where I took the lead with him…at 21 after a dance class, where we struggled for dominance…at 28 very drunk at a bar…at 36 in a dance studio (he was at his physical peak in his sea-green tights, and he let me take full charge)…at 42 in our apartment as boyfriends…at 48 at a hotel when his body had gotten thicker…at 55 in the middle of the night at his dance studio, and somehow this was melancholy…at 60 in a hotel after some grand reception for the sake of nostalgia…and then I was with him now in his apartment, young me and older him, and all this began to feel like an orgy with one supremely attractive man. At the same time, I knew that if I had met him when he was my age my choreographer wouldn’t have given me a second look. My youth and his age were the only things I had going for me in this situation.
He was done finally, and he untied me and my legs ached. I love a sore, worked-out body, because that’s what a body is for, not to workout at a gym but to be tied, moved, posed, displayed, felt, desired, thought of in its absence, then thrown on the trash heap when you’re all worn out and done. He was sitting opposite me now and saying that he used to be able to see those buildings from his windows, downtown. He said it the only way you should say that, gruffly, respectfully, moving right along, let’s not linger over it. He talked about Isadora Duncan. He said that the New York Times had it in for him, but he said it politely, reasonably, as he said everything. The Duke Ellington music was playing on repeat.
I went over a fourth time, and it was much the same, Duke Ellington, tied to the chair, and so forth, and he said that he’d like me to come see one of his dances at some point. I was excited by this prospect. I wanted to see what he worked with, and whom he worked with. He sent me a discreet email invitation to his latest evening of dance, and I went by myself.
There were two programs on the bill. The first was an old dance of his for nine male dancers, and it was easy to follow the theme—the men would group together and whenever one of them did something different or out of step with the others, this difference would be squashed and the dancer would be brought back into line with the group. The dancers were a bit older than was usual; most of them, I think, were in their mid-forties. They might even have danced the premiere of it, several years before.
There was one dancer who was younger, close to my age. He was dressed in a rather bulky black t-shirt and black pants, as the other eight dancers were. This was not a sexy dance, not at all. In fact, he was not a sexy choreographer, as a rule. His personal reticence kept his dances chaste, shy. You forgot that you were looking at bodies that might be sexual with each other.
The second dance was new, and it was between a man and a woman, and the woman flopped around in what seemed like drunkenness, and the man kept trying to catch her, but she got pulled away from him in the end by a well-meaning, repressive crowd. His work was filled with well-meaning, repressive crowds. He was intelligent enough to know that, though he was cursed, or blessed, with being well-meaning and repressive himself, it also had its uses.
There was a reception afterwards in the lobby with champagne, and I downed three glasses in quick succession. Whenever there was free liquor, my thirst was not easily quenched in those days. I got that dispersed, fuzzy feeling from the alcohol and weaved slightly as I walked, but I was careful as I moved, in the time-honored overly careful drunken way as I downed two more glasses of champagne. I saw him enter the lobby. Everyone applauded, and he accepted their applause graciously. He was in figurehead mode, the director of a company, and I got self-conscious and didn’t want him to see me.
For about an hour, I kept grabbing more champagne and avoiding him, which wasn’t hard to do. Everybody wanted to talk to him. I slipped along the walls and into corners and hid behind the dresses of women and the shoulders of tall men and the hubbub of it all, but then the crowd surged a bit, there were more people coming in, and I was swept along until I was face to face with him, and I grinned, helplessly, and his face was set in a granite smile. He looked at me but didn’t seem to see me. After a moment, with courtly charm, he reached out and patted me on the shoulder and then moved along to talk to a group of dressed-to-kill moneyed women.
I wrote him an enthusiastic email the next day, and he sent me a very brief email back saying that he was done with me and that he had had enough of me. It was pretty brutal. I was in my twenties then and looking as good as I ever would and he was in his late sixties. Being rejected by a man so much older really stung me. But he attempted to console me slightly when I expressed my surprise. “You do something like this, and then you move on…aren’t you like that?” he wrote me. I sensed a kind of paternal kindness and perplexity in this.
Years went by, and he got even older, but he still and always looked great. On Facebook, I kept seeing info about a fancy retrospective program he was doing, and I saw that there were ten-dollar tickets available, and so I bought a ticket and went. I was in a good mood. I was in a good place in my life, and so I enjoyed the dances, and the dancers, two of whom were very sexy. And I looked with what felt like love of some kind at my choreographer as he entered to sit in the back of the theater. He seemed a little smaller physically somehow, out in the open, in the light. I was happy to be there with him.
Afterwards there was a small reception, but much more modest than the one I had been to before, and everyone seemed to be over the age of sixty except for the dancers. I screwed up my courage and slowly made my way over to him. We made eye contact, and I could not be certain if he recognized me. I don’t think he did, but maybe a little. There was maybe a little bit of recognition in his eyes, but carefully repressed. “I loved it,” I told him, and I meant it with all my heart.
Dan Callahan is the author of Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman (2012), Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave (2014), The Art of American Screen Acting, 1912–1960 (2018), The Art of American Screen Acting, 1960 to Today (2019), and the novel That Was Something (2018). He writes about film for Sight & Sound, Film Comment, Nylon, and The Wrap.